(Chapter 1)

Neal walked into the upscale nightclub with just the right amount of charm, his suit tailored just right, a black blazer over a white linen shirt buttoned to the just below the collar to show some chest with tan slacks over black Italian leather loafers. He looked the part of a rich playboy on his way to meet someone special.

His blue eyes casually scanned the room without being obvious, finding his mark across the crowded room at a table in the corner. He smoothed back his hair with a confidence no one could teach as he continued to cross the room without missing a step. He skirted with a smile and wink a few interested parties but politely declined the young women till he made it to the table he'd set his sights on.

"Mi, Amor... you look lovely tonight, Bethany." He added just a hint of accent to his words, the young woman glancing up at him and smiling radiantly back. She wore her golden brown hair up in a fashionable manner, ringlets framing her face and cascading down to her neck. She wore a shiny strapless dress, probably by someone expensive like Gucci, that emphasized her model-esque figure even more, her long lashes flashing up at him over deep violet blue eyes and soft strawberry red lips curved in an inviting manner. Her neck, hands and wrists were glittering with just enough tasteful jewelry to make her look beautiful.

Neal took her hand and kissed it gently, sitting down beside her when she motioned for him to join her.

"Alexander... such a sweetheart. You're late." She pouted ever so charmingly, her violet eyes flashing in mock annoyance. He blushed convincingly and shrugged in apology.

"My business kept me longer than I expected. If you would just carry a cell maybe I could have called you." He playfully teased, watching her olive tone face flush ever so slightly pink.

"Alexi... You know I hate such encumbrances. They take such joy out of life being tethered to such a device." Neal felt a certain oddness to her words as if she were talking about his anklet but he shook it off, continuing his facade of playboy, nibbling at her ear as her laughter tinkled and they flirted. They were supposed to be the perfect couple, eyes on them but under the table she was pushing something into his pocket out of sight. He could feel the slight pressure of her hand on his leg then on his jacket pocket as she tugged ever so slightly and dropped it inside.

"It's always nice doing business with you, Alexi..." Her voice trailed off, her long fingers gently caressing his arm and face, nails scratching delicately his skin goosebumping in response. She smiled and nudged him slightly, Neal sliding out of the booth and standing, his hand holding hers yet again and kissing it.

"Always a pleasure, Bethany." His blue eyes flashed at her from across her lovely hand as his lips gently touched her skin then parted, his hand letting go of hers slowly as he walked away. Neal disappeared into the crowd, poking at the expensive looking watch on his wrist and smiling as he spoke quietly into it.

"I'll meet you in the back." Neal made his way through the throngs of people to a back exit and out into the alley. A few people were back there smoking so he moved along till he was alone but near the entrance of the alley where Peter and crew were to meet him. He reached down into his pocket to see what they had been looking forward to getting: A microfiche of photos taken at a local charitable event. Bethany was part of a ring of high-end thieves who dealt with corporate information. This was supposed to be their latest intrigue, Neal playing a newcomer who had been wining an dining her to get into the game as a fence and thief.

Neal pulled the small item out of his pocket and looked at it curiously. It was basically a small metallic capsule the size of a ping pong ball but slightly smaller. He twisted it open carefully, a popping sound surprising him as something wet and slightly smoky sprayed out of it and onto his face. He wiped at his cheek but whatever it was burned ever so slightly, the scent making his nose crinkle and eyes water. He felt his pulse begin to race in reaction to whatever the stuff was, his legs turning to jelly as he collapsed to the pavement.

"He's back here!" Someone hissed nearby. Neal turned and saw shadowy forms approaching. He felt confused, his mind suddenly addled by the odd scent of the capsule's contents. Neal blinked as he tried to focus mentally and visually in the darkness.

"Pe... ter?"

Whoever it was they can't have been the agent, rough hands grasping at his arms and pulling them back behind him, binding them with something that made a zipping sound when shut. Maybe ties? He was too out of it to think straight, feeling himself pulled to his feet as another set of hands stuffed something soft into his mouth and he was dragged away.

Neal was only just conscious of what was going on around him, the men holding him pausing at some point near a dark vehicle. He heard rather than saw the sound of the trunk popped, hands lifting him up and placing him inside. His eyes gazed up glassily at the blurry figures overhead, their profiles shadowed in the darkness.

"It's supposed to be pretty hot tomorrow. Wonder if they'll find him in time. Bethany said to be sure he doesn't talk."

Neal knew that voice, his mind trying to recall in its current state as he lay helpless before them. It was a man named... Roth, short for Rothchilds, one of Bethany's crew. He was from a well to do family but had been disinherited, turning to Bethany's group when they promised fast fortunes. Roth was ruthless in his pursuits and was willing to do anything, even kill for a quick buck. He had no conscience and now was no exception.

"This should keep him quiet." He heard the jingling of something small and felt the rags pulled from his mouth. Someone grasped his chin and forced his mouth open, something small like pills pushed into his mouth. Neal tried to spit them out but someone kept his mouth closed, pinching his nose so he had to swallow them, his throat burning slightly as the pills went down. He coughed hoarsely when they finally let him loose but it was short lived as they returned the rag to his mouth and added some tape over his lips.

"That's not quite enough to kill but it will keep him from moving for a while." Roth's voice was starting to take on an echoing quality as Neal felt the pills do their job. He wondered what they were for as he started to see two and three of the same figures, their shadowy forms fading till his vision went black and he passed out.

()()()

Peter heard the whole conversation, wondering what was going on as he hurried to the meeting spot. It was too late when he arrived and found no sign of Neal. He continued to hear the conversation through the watch on his partner's wrist but had no idea where he had been taken. Finally the conversation seemed to fade away and he thought at first perhaps the watch had given out, but when they searched the area around the club, they found the watch dropped on the ground in a nearby alleyway as if accidentally. There was no sign of Neal anywhere. He called for Jones to look up all the cams in the area for signs of where Neal may have been taken.

"Neal... where are you?"

()()()

Neal slept the sleep of the dead. His body rolled and rocked around the back of the trunk with the movement of the vehicle. The car stopped moving at some point and the sound of something being dented hard could be heard just before silence. He heard none of this, his eyes shut tight, face slack from whatever drug he'd been given.

His mind was blank, dreamless and void of thought while in the drugged hands of sleep. Slowly over time, his mind began to wake up as the effects wore down and consciousness tried to come. He felt heat, stifling heat, pulling to raise his hand in his sleep to wipe his brow but unable to. In his mind, the effects of the heat were ten fold.

Neal dreamed he was tied to an enormous flat rock in the midst of a desert. Overhead the sun shone down on him blindingly, the heat of the rays burning his bare skin. He was wearing nothing but some torn khaki cargo shorts, the rest of his body bare in the sunlight. He struggled to free himself but his arms were firmly pulled back and around the rock, his ankles secured as was his head and neck. He could feel his skin burning against the rock as the sun heated the stone. Rags filled his mouth and something had been pulled tightly over his lips, shutting his mouth securely. He felt thirsty and parched, looking up as he squinted to see shadows of vultures or buzzards circling overhead.

"MMMmmmph!" was the only sound that escaped his throat as he tried to cry out for help. He saw nothing for miles but cactus and sand. The heat continued to sap at him, the rock getting warmer as he lay against it with only his skin to protect him. He looked up as one of the ominous shadows swooped down and he felt it peck at his stomach. He cried out, struggling to escape but the bird cried out shrilly as it attacked again.

In reality, Neal was groaning in pain, twitching in his sleep as sweat poured down his face. He was still trapped inside the trunk unconscious, face reddening as he gulped in his sleep, his breath coming hard.

Stop it... he thought...

Please...

Neal was pleading now, more buzzards coming to poke at his now bleeding abdomen, the pain blinding him more than the hot desert sun. He twisted but his bond didn't afford him much room for movement.

No more...

Please...

Neal felt his strength failing, his body going slack when he heard it.

NEAL!

He squinted in the sunlight in his dream turning towards the sound. The birds were still squawking around his body, pecking at him.

Who...?

He was fading fast, seeing things he thought, as someone approached in the distance from the desert to his right. The sun blocked their form other than to show someone walking towards him from far away. Their outline wavered like water in the heat, Neal thinking it must be a mirage.

Hurry up and get him out!

The voice sounded closer, a loud metallic clanging covering it as his eyes closed. After a moment, the sounds and voice seemed to fade or maybe it was him as the heat sapped him into a stupor and his eyes started to roll back into his head.

Neal felt the stabbing pain of the birds pecking at his belly but he was too weak to fight back, passing into a blissful darkness.